Yarkhei Kallah – The Great Study Festival
While we enjoy a bit of relief after Purim and before the intense preparations for Pesach begin, the Babylonian Yeshiva world used this intermediate time between Adar and Nissan to renew their studies, gathering students from near and far in anticipation of the second half of the year. Distance learning didn’t begin in the 21st century, it dates all the way back to Babylonia!
When Rav arrived in Babylonia, during the time of Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, he decided to break away from the Yeshiva headed by Shmuel in Nehardea, due to the significant age gap between them: “Rav did not want to have Shmuel as a pupil and be above him, nor did Shmuel wish to have Rav as his pupil, since Rav was far older than Shmuel” (Iggeret of R. Sherira Gaon, French recension, ed. Levine). Rav therefore initiated the inauguration of a new Yeshiva and study center in Sura, also known as Mata Mehasya, which was spiritually desolate at the time. According to R. Sherira, “There were many Jews there as well, and some were not even aware of the laws of meat and milk; Rav said, I should settle here so that Torah may increase in this place.”
Sura became a center for Torah study, where people would gather around Rav and devote their time and energy to learning. Rav’s successor, R. Huna, initiated condensed study sessions for the benefit of those who wanted to devote time to Torah study, but were unable to do so year round because they needed to work and support their families. These sessions were held twice a year, in Elul and Adar, when there was generally less agricultural work in Babylonia. The sessions included a summary of the previous six months of study, and setting a study agenda for the six months to follow. Parallel gatherings also took place in the Yeshiva of Pumbedita.
“The Rosh Yeshiva would oversee their learning and test them” (Testimony of Natan ha-Bavli, in Seder Olam Zuta). Apparently the Rosh Yeshiva would oversee groups that studied remotely, and would conclude the material previously studied, and prepare them for continued distance learning on their own. This preparation and anticipation kept the pupils connected with their Yeshiva base, and the sense of solidarity with the distance learners contributed to reinforcing and sustaining Torah study.
The Yarchei Kallah drew large crowds to the Yeshiva, to an extent that the king’s court informed on Rabbah (third generation Babylonian Amorah and Rosh Yeshiva of Pumbedita): “There was one man from among the Jews, who would relieve 12,000 Jews from the king’s dues, for one month in the summer and one month in the winter” (Bava Metzia 86a).
According to the baraita in Pesahim 6a, “The laws of Pesach are studied and explored 30 days before Pesach. R. Shimon b. Gamliel says: only two weeks [before Pesah].” Whether the laws of Pesach require two weeks or a full month to explore, the Yarchei Kallah provided the time and venue to study the many details involved in koshering the house and observing a kosher Pesach.
Torah is far more widespread today than the boundaries of the Beit Midrash, and given the means available to us and in keeping with this tradition, sufficient time should be allotted to exploring the laws of Pesach before chag (especially the unique situation this year, of Pesach that falls on motzai Shabbat!).